Screen-time Controversy: A survey of the research and arguments

The current conversation about children and the media is full of contradictions. We strive for the next generation to be digital natives so that they will be competitive in the global markets of tomorrow. This is most obvious in the new Common Core education standards, which asks that students begin to use “digital tools” in Kindergarten (W.K.6) and states that third graders should learn keyboarding skills (W.3.6) and how to use digital sources to locate information (W.3.8). Yet, we want our children to be well adjusted, socially adaptive, healthy, and active. This has led to the call to ban screen-time for young children. is just one organization with an ad campaign telling children to put down the game controllers and to go outside and play. The arguments surrounding children and the media is multi-faceted. Different research focuses on how the amount, format, and content of media affect children of various ages. Recent studies have started to examine the effects of caregiver absorption in digital devices and how both the background noise and the lack of caregiver attention may also affect a child’s development. The variety of opinions and the multitude of studies can be overwhelming to a parent or teacher who just has the best interests of children in mind. In the following set of blogs I will explore the current controversies and analyze the recommendations made by experts in the field. Modern Kids Watching Modern Screens It’s not news that the modern world is becoming increasingly saturated by media. A recent large-scale national phone survey conducted by Common Sense Media showed that children have dramatically increased access to mobile devices than they did even a couple of years ago. They found that 75% of children from zero to eight years old have access to mobile devices, which is a 23% increase from results compiled in 2011. Despite this, television is still by far the most dominant way that young children are exposed to digital media: 76% of the time that the average young child spends in front of a screen is spent watching television programs. Research consistently shows that many children are exposed to hours of media: 115 minutes daily, according to the above mentioned survey. A third of children under eight even have a television in their bedrooms. And, when not actively viewing a program, many children are still surrounded by the buzz of the televisions in the background. One study was conducted through a nationally representative phone survey that asked parents to both self-report media behaviors within their homes and to keep a 24-hour diary to track media usage, (Lapierre, Piotrowski, & Linebarger 2012). Researchers found that the average child from 8 months to 8 years in age is exposed to nearly four hours of background television a day. When the data is broken up by age group it reveals that children under two are exposed to an astonishing 5.5 hours of background television in a typical day. These findings are particularly disturbing when juxtaposed with research showing how background television is a distraction from play for even very young children. In one particular study researchers observed children ranging from 12 to 36 months playing with toys, (Schmidt et al. 2008). For half of the time a game-show was on a television in the background. Although children were not interested in watching the show, they were visibly distracted by the television, glancing at it occasionally, and showing less attention to their toys. By tracking these subtle movements, researchers concluded that even when a child does not appear to be paying attention to the television, the background noise is a distraction that keeps them from exploring, manipulating, and learning about the world around them. This then has a theoretical impact on the development of executive functions, like controlling attention, which is crucial to school success. The Players People have been debating the effect of media on children since televisions first made their way into American homes. I agree with the majority of experts that media use should be limited and age-appropriate. Not everyone agrees, however, with where to draw the line. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the White House Task Force of Childhood Obesity both recommend banning or severely limiting screen time for young children. However, a joint statement released by the Fred Rogers Center and the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) argues for a more nuanced approach. The Controversy The AAP and the White House Task Force both cite studies that implicate extended exposure to digital technology as responsible for language delays, obesity, and attention disorders, (Zimmerman, Christakis, & Meltzoff, 2007; Chonchaiya & Pruksananonda 2008; Robb, Richert, & Wartella 2009). As a result, they recommend a complete ban on media exposure for children under 2, and place a strict limit of an hour a day of media for young children. These organizations view media as an indulgence, and like junk food, is only acceptable in small quantities. The Fred Rogers Center and the NAEYC argue that not all media is created equal. Yes, some programs are simply passive entertainment, but to lump all media into one large category is ridiculous. These organizations cite evidence that researched-based educational programming with built-in interactions can actually be beneficial for preschool aged children, and therefore an overarching limit or ban on screentime is too heavy handed of an approach, (Linebarger & Walker, 2005; Adams, 2011) They argue that age-appropriate media, along with parental monitoring, is acceptable and may even be educational for young children. Now What? Our contradictory relationship with technology only confuses the controversy over screen time. We want the next generation to be digital natives, yet we worry about the consequences of so much media. So, what are the answers? How does all of this screen time really affect the developing mind? In my next blog I will focus on the research surrounding media and the use of digital devices by children under two years old. I will go into more detail about the studies done on the specific effects of television on infant and toddler development and I will outline the different recommendations made by both the organizations promoting screen-time bans and those arguing for a more moderate approach. References

Adams, M.J. (2011). Technology for Developing Children’s Language and Literacy: Bringing Speech Recognition to the Classroom. New York: The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop.

Chonchaiya, W., Pruksananonda, C., (2008). Television viewing associates with delayed language development. Acta Paediatrica 97: 977–82.

Lapierre, M. A., Piotrowski, J. T., & Linebarger, D. L. (2011). Background Television in the Homes of US Children. Pediatrics, peds.2011-2581, 839-846.

Lightfoot, C., Cole, M., & Cole, S. (2009). The development of children (6th ed.). New York, NY: Worth Publishers.

Linebarger D.L., Walker D., (2005). Infants’ and toddlers’ television viewing and language outcomes. American Behavioral Scientist 48: 624–45.

Media and Children. (n.d.). American Academy of Pediatrics.

National Association for the Education of Young Children & Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media. (2012). Technology and Interactive Media as Tools in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8.

National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers. (2010). Common Core State Standards. Washington, DC.

Rideout, V., (2013). Zero to Eight: Children’s Media Use in America 2013. A Common Sense Media Research Study.

Robb, M.B., Richert, R.A., Wartella E., (2009). Just a talking book? Word learning from watching baby videos. British Journal of Developmental Psychology 27(11):27–45

Schmidt, M.E., Pempek, T.A., Kirkorian, H.L., Lund, A.F. & Anderson, D.R., (2008). The Effects of Background Television on the Toy Play Behavior of Very Young Children. Child Development 79 (4): 1137-1151.

White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity. (2010). Solving the Problem of Childhood Obesity within a Generation. Washington, DC: Office of the President of the United States.

Zimmerman F.J., Christakis D.A., Meltzoff A.N., (2007). Associations between media viewing and language development in children under age 2 years. Journal of Pediatrics 151: 364–8

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